Big Bites at Hartwell

ANDERSON, S.C. — Todd Faircloth's 6-pound, 2-ounce fish took big bass honors on the first day of the Bassmaster Classic. But fish two and three times that big have been caught by the pros fishing Lake Hartwell this week.

"I saw some diving birds, so I stopped on them and threw my little Fluke out there," said Kevin Wirth on Friday. "I could see there were white bass on top, but sometimes there will be largemouth and spots underneath them. I thought maybe I could get one to bite."

Wirth got six bites out of the school of fish that had pushed some blueback herring to the surface, including a hybrid striper in the 8- to 10-pound range and five white bass.

Lake Hartwell appears to have a healthy population of several bass species. And that has made for some exciting times this week, even if they were caused by fish that never made it to the Bassmaster Classic weigh-in at Greenville's Bi-Lo Center.

Timmy Horton caught a striped bass during practice that he guessed weighed 15 to 20 pounds.

As Wirth indicated, when baitfish are getting busted on the water surface, it can be worth a stop for the Bassmaster pros, even if they only see white on top. Black bass will often pick off injured shad or herring under a flurry of surface activity.

And both Wirth and Horton indicated they enjoyed getting their line stretched, even after they realized there wasn't a black bass on the end of it.

Mike McClelland, on the other hand, was peeved after a 15-pound striper bit his lure during pre-practice last week. McClelland was trying to optimize his time on the lake, plus he was using a prototype SPRO stickbait, which was in short supply. McClelland didn't have any option other than slowly playing the striper, hooked on 10-pound test line, back to the boat.

"I wasn't real happy," McClelland said. "It was a waste of time. But I didn't want to lose that stickbait."

Black bass anglers and striped bass anglers have had a running debate ever since stripers were first introduced into freshwater impoundments. When Santee-Cooper Reservoir was dammed in 1941, it was discovered that this saltwater species, which can live in freshwater too, was successfully reproducing there. Although stripers aren't able to reproduce in most freshwater lakes, they have been increasingly stocked in them to provide a big-game species.

Most fisheries biologists have concluded that stripers and hybrid stripers (a cross between white bass and stripers) don't negatively impact the populations of largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass in a lake. Stripers mainly feed on shad, herring and other baitfish, not black bass or other game species, like crappie.

Wirth, who is from Crestwood, Kentucky, believes the biologists.

"They're preying on the same food species as bass," Wirth said of stripers. "But I think the largemouth and spots in this lake have plenty of places to hide. There's an abundance of fish in here."

However, you don't want to bring that subject up in front of Auburn, Ala., pro Steve Kennedy unless you want to get an earful of stripers-eating-bass stories. Kennedy thinks stripers have had a negative impact on black bass populations wherever they've been introduced in Alabama lakes.

"At Lake Martin, there is a boat ramp where three or four jackpot tournaments a week were held," said Kennedy. "The stripers got trained to come into that cove when the boats came to weigh-in. They were eating the bass practically out of the hands of the guys releasing them. Honest to God. They started beating the stripers away with boat paddles."

And Kennedy was just getting started. He claims to know a man living on Smith Lake in north Alabama who uses 12-inch spotted bass as bait for stripers. It's, of course, illegal to use gamefish for bait in any state.

"I've never seen him do it, but I believe him," Kennedy said. "He claims a shad isn't big enough to get those stripers' attention in the flooded timber there. But he said if you drop a 12-inch spot in there, they'll eat it up."

The fisheries biologists and the bass pros will probably argue over this subject for decades to come. But there's no doubt about the fact that the stripers are producing some big bites for the bass pros this week at Lake Hartwell.

"It's fun to catch one of those stripers or hybrids," said Wirth.

Even if there isn't any money in it this week.